The Vatican issued a letter Saturday attacking the "distortions" and "lethal effects" of feminism, which it defined as an effort to erase differences between men and women -- a goal, the statement said, that undermines the "natural two-parent structure" of the family and makes "homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent."
The sharp critique was contained in a document issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a chief adviser to Pope John Paul II and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the department in charge of defining Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The 37-page document also outlined the Vatican's formula for relationships between men and women, calling for "active collaboration between the sexes" and rejecting subjugation of women.
The statement was the latest Vatican salvo against trends it regards as undermining its teachings on sexuality and the family. Vatican officials have assailed abortion and contraception; politicians who support abortion through legislation; and legalized same-sex unions. The pope approved the document, titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World."
Catholic feminists in the United States said the letter presented a caricature of feminism as antagonistic toward men and trying to deny any difference between the sexes. They said feminism seeks equal rights and respect for both genders.
"The demonization of feminism is most disturbing," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group for abortion rights, who said her blood pressure "shot up 20 points" when she read the letter.
"It takes extreme positions that may have been historically held by five people and casts them as if they were held by every woman," Kissling said. "The feminism I know is all for partnerships and is all for empowering both men and women. The feminism I know does not ignore the fact that there are sexual differences."
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, a feminist theologian at Harvard Divinity School, said the document restated positions the Vatican has taken many times and that the only surprise was its timing. She said church leaders may be feeling some urgency to combat same-sex marriage, as well as renewed pressure to consider ordaining women in response to the worldwide scandal over sexual abuse by priests.
"It has some positive things in it, but the political function of the document is the same as the ones before," Fiorenza said. "It's trying to make a theological case, which they're really not able to make, against the full equality of women in the church."
Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said on Vatican Radio that the aim of the letter was to critique two current strands in feminism: one that emphasizes "a radical rivalry between the sexes" and the other that seeks to "cancel the differences between the sexes."
The letter argued that "the obscuring of the difference . . . of the sexes has enormous consequences," including inspiring ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."
While assaulting what it said were the bases of feminist ideology, the letter tried to tackle the practical difficulties and inequities that feminists also decry. It appeared to attempt to strike a balance between a Catholic ideal of women raising children at home and the reality that many work outside the home.
Women ought not be stigmatized for desiring the life of a homemaker, the letter argued. "Indeed, a just valuing of the work of women within the family is required," it said. Women who choose to work in the labor force should be awarded a proper schedule and "not have to choose between relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress," it said.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic weekly America, said in an e-mail message that "although most American feminists would express their ideology differently than the Vatican, on the practical level they are on the same page (in terms of equality in education, politics, workplace) except on abortion and women priests." If there are differences, he added, "it is probably on the relationship between men and women in the family, not in society. . . . For the Vatican, the ideal is that a father be paid well enough so that a mother can stay home and raise the kids."
The letter called for the Catholic Church to take advantage of "feminine values" that include listening, understanding, caring and faithfulness. Although women are banned from the priesthood, their role in the church is not "a passivity inspired by an outdated conception of femininity," the letter maintained.
Almost a third of the letter was devoted to biblical declarations about the sexes. "From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity," it said. Tracing the story of Adam and Eve, it said original sin opened the way to relations between man and woman "in which love will frequently be debased into pure self-seeking, in a relationship which ignores and kills love and replaces it with the yoke of domination of one sex over the other."
In the afterlife, the letter stated, men and women will continue to be different, but sex will come to an end. "The temporal and earthly expression of sexuality is transient," it declared.
Cooperman reported from Washington.